Calendar changes make for a challenging Ulster series: Council secretary Brian McAvoy

The tightened GAA calendar means the Ulster Championship will be played off over six weeks
The tightened GAA calendar means the Ulster Championship will be played off over six weeks

ULSTER Council secretary Brian McAvoy fears the condensed nature of the Ulster Championship could have a negative impact on attendances this year – but doesn’t see the provincial championships coming under threat.

This year’s Ulster Championship will be run off over a six-week period – May 13 to June 24 – due to the introduction of a round robin format at the All-Ireland quarter-final stages, entitled the Super 8's.

Last season’s Ulster Championship was played over an eight-week period – May 20 to July 16 – with only one weekend staging two matches.

This year, the Ulster Championship will have back-to-back games on two consecutive weekends - May 19/20 and May 26/27 - with their semi-finals remaining standalone fixtures.

The tightened calendar gives the Ulster Council significantly less marketing space, and compounding their situation is RTE and Sky’s migration to the re-jigged Munster Senior Hurling Championship and the Super 8's this year.

As a result, only two of the province’s Championship games will be screened ‘live’ [a semi-final and final].

BBCNI will show full deferred coverage of four other games while Saturday fixtures – Fermanagh versus Armagh and Down versus Armagh – will be shown via the iPlayer.

McAvoy said: “Of course we have the complication this year – and certainly for the next two years – we will have a condensed Championship where we’ll be on consecutive days, Saturday, Sunday – Saturday, Sunday.

“So that may well impact on some attendances because you would have some people attending nearly every Ulster Championship match. If they’re back-to-back that just mightn’t be practical.

“Look, it’s going to be a challenge because of the tight nature of the Championship.”

The Ulster final was traditionally played on the middle Sunday of July but it has been pulled back to the third Sunday in June.

“Obviously we had to be practical,” McAvoy added.

“We’re tied by the dates of Qualifier games and the All-Ireland series. For example, traditionally the Ulster final would be the middle Sunday in July. That is now first round of the All-Ireland quarter-finals – or the three phases, colloquially called the Super 8's – so we’ve got to be finished before that.

“We’ve got to be finished in time for the beaten [Ulster] finalist who has a game before the All-Ireland quarter-finals. So the dates of our Championship are dictated to by that…”

Despite feeling the pressure of a tightened schedule more than any other province, the Ulster Council secretary doesn’t regard the calendar changes the beginning of the end for provincial championships.

“I don’t think the outcry to get rid of the provincial Championships is that big at all,” he said.

“There are a number of people who are very vociferous about it but I think they are a very, very small minority.”

With the changes to the traditional minor and U21 structures - now U17 and U20 - the Ulster Council has also had to consider their curtain raiser options for senior Championship games.

The U17 clash between Donegal versus Monaghan will be staged before this Sunday’s Ulster preliminary round game between Cavan and Donegal at Ballybofey.

A Lory Meagher game between Fermanagh and Cavan has been pencilled in as a curtain raiser to the Fermanagh versus Armagh football clash at Brewster Park on Saturday May 19.

An U17 Championship game will be played before Tyrone and Monaghan on May 20 before the U20 Championship games are introduced as curtain raisers.

“Is it practical to play your three main championships all at the same time?” asked McAvoy.

“That’s something that will be a learning experience this year. For the early part of the Championship you will have minor curtain raisers – apart from the Lory Meagher game – and then for the latter part it will be U20 curtain raisers, while the two finals will be played on the same day – June 24. So it’ll be interesting to see how the senior and U20 finals go together.”

In November, the Ulster Council shelved their senior hurling Championship for three years due to a lack of interest and difficulties in trying to find a slot for the competition to be played.

“It was disappointing that we did have to shelve the Ulster Hurling Championship this year,” said McAvoy, “but, really, our hands were tied. There was really no space for it.

“To be a meaningful Championship it has to be played at the right time. Last year, for example, we played it in April. But that is now a club month.

“The first round of the grade two, three and four [national hurling] competitions started in the first week in May and that takes us right through to June and then you’re followed by the latter stages of the U20 competition.

“At that stage you’re into August and counties are finished. The players just want to go to their clubs and unfortunately it will be the case for the next two years [that there will be no Ulster SHC].

“We’ll review it then to see is there an appetite and see if there is scope in the calendar. I still think there is and appetite in some quarters but not every quarter. It’s probably for counties other than Antrim but then is it a provincial championship if your best county isn’t in it?

“Antrim have won 17 or 18 titles in a row. It had lost something from the 90's when you had Antrim, Down and latterly Derry challenging for it. And of course, it was a means to an end because the winners progressed to the All-Ireland Championship. Once that changed, it did devalue it.

“But really, people voted with their feet. When you have 200 or 300 people at the final you have to question it.”